by Brenda Clough
At Eton, British boys had learnt the classical Greek motto: man is the measure of all things. Not for the first time it occurred to Titus that Protagoras deserved a clout over the earhole. This creature could not be measured or even described in a man’s terms. It lay like a forest across the range of hills to the south, many-hued and textured and extending for miles. In fact it was possible the thing was the range – who knew how thick it was? The downland ripples were curiously reminiscent of vertebrae. There were things like pools of water fringed with moss, only nearly vertical in the cliff – either they were jelly or the water was held in place by a membrane or lens. There were broad forests of golden lichen as thick as hair alternating with smooth slick black places glistening with damp. There were regions of reddish mossy tendrils, and acres of quivery soft earth. It was like the terrain they had so painfully traversed, only different – organized. All the different bits, fallen awry and out of place, were useless. Only here, marshaled under an organizing entity, were the true possibilities of the life here made manifest. This was no mere life form. A nasty uncanny feeling came over Titus, that here was the planet’s god.
And it was dying. Pieces were blowing away, flaking off in the wind to become the annoying molds that they had learned to hate. Patches of colourful growth sagged and changed hue and flowed helpessly downhill. Order was being steadily overwhelmed by disorder. Even as they watched one of the fringed limpid pools wavered and leaked away.
Titus leaned against the friendly genuine rocks. “El. Are you seeing this?”
“Yeah. Oh my God. It’s worth the trip.”
There was a flat sandstone ledge to the right, just before the slope dropped more steeply away to the sea. Stacked there, sealed carefully in triple layers of thick plastic, was equipment: monitors, solar arrays, battery banks, keyboards, cables. “The translation gear,” Dio said. “Joan’s sending all the data up, El. So we’ll know in a little while how far they got in talking to it.”
“If you ask me, I’d say the thing’s beyond talk.” And snap went the final thread of his mission. Titus bade a rueful mental farewell to the imaginary battles against hordes of clamshell-wielding natives. This pathetic dying creature couldn’t attack anyone. Sickness alone was responsible for the human casualties.
Dio wandered around tracing the run of cables, while Titus sat down in a convenient stony angle and put his feet up. Too convenient, come to think of it. This seat had been made by Shell, the footrest rock placed for her shorter legs, everything conveniently to hand for research. He mused upon the blank quiet screens. The hours and days she must have spent here! Damned stubborn woman, he was certain she would have cheerfully died in the traces – pluck to the backbone.
Suddenly one screen and then another flickered into life. Titus sat up, alarmed. “Dio, what the devil are you at?”
“It’s not me!” They stared at the screen as a single word trembled into existence: Hello.
Titus swore feebly. This was Shell’s job! The other screen offered, helpfully, a
definition: “Indicates readiness for conversation.”
Dio’s monkey face was blank with astonishment. “Ticker was saying the Fortie knows how to manipulate acid levels in its secretions. To use that to ‘talk’ …”
Perhaps it would be rude to ignore the overture? Titus had been wrong about the thing being moribund. The cut direct might send it into a rage. “If Shell did it, we can do it,” Titus decided. “Key in something cordial, like ‘how d’ye do.’”
“Maybe ‘hello’ would be safer,” Dio suggested. “God knows how much vocabulary they’ve been able to build.”
“Good – try it.”
Dio pecked the word in. Titus watched the vast being beside him. Though he had no idea what to look for, or indeed where on the enormous expanse of protoplasm were features of expression. It might be like his confusion about female clothing when he first arrived, when he’d been unable to distinguish a whore from a respectable female.
In retrospect now that had been easy. Now there was not a twitch of a tendril:
only the endless sad shredding away of the Fortie’s substance. The sun dipped down below the clouds and shot its long level rays to glaze the scarps with gold. Only the most frantically trite statements came to mind, to stoke the conversation: Pretty planet you have here. Shall we be seeing a little rain this evening? A bit nippy for the time of year, I find.
Before he could get Dio to enter in any of these inanities a fresh word materialized on the screen: New?
“Yes, we’re the new intake,” Titus said. Dio kept it to a simple ‘yes.’ Certainly they fit the definition on the other screen – not known or seen before.
Then the significance of that query hit him. The Fortie had noticed their presence and identified them as novel entities somehow, through Heaven knew what unearthly sense organs. When they looked, it was looking back! To think of this carpet of protoplasm as intelligent, perceptive – it was more eerie than anything Titus could have conceived.
The final red fingernail edge of the sun vanished under the horizon. They both had flashlamps, but it would be imprudent to linger. The others would worry, and there was always the chance of stumbling over the cliff edge in the dark. “Good night,” Dio entered in. They loitered a moment to see if there would be a reply. See you tomorrow, the screen suddenly read.
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Brenda Clough has written a dozen novels and many short stories. She has been a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Of this novel, she says, “This novel began my long fascination with time travel, a bug that I am still trying to get out of my system.”